Connacht Rugby return to the Galway Sportsground on Saturday evening (7.15pm ) hoping to repeat last season’s home victory over visitors Leinster in this RaboDirect Pro 12 interprovincial clash.
To do that coach Pat Lam is demanding an improvement from his players after last Friday’s disappointing 22-16 defeat to Munster at Thomond Park.
Although Connacht produced a strong finish to claim a valuable bonus point, the game was lost in the first 50 minutes when turnovers and inaccurate kicking were punished.
“ Frustrating. Kicking can be very effective or it can cost you, and against Munster it was not great, and turnovers came back to bite us - silly 50-50s or losing ball in contact,” he says.
To that end this week’s early training has included a specific kicking session, but Lam also expects his forwards to front up again.
“We know Leinster have quality players, they are the current champions and we know they are a good side. The biggest thing for us is to try to put them under pressure, work out where as a team where we can dominate, and one of those areas is starting up front. But even when we have some really strong performances up front, you need the kicking game to balance that and it was one area we struggled with last weekend, so it’s a good challenge.”
Lam hopes to welcome back several players who missed last weekend’s Thomond Park clash, including flanker Jake Heenan, Michael Swift, Sean Henry and Ronan Loughney. However Heenan and Gavin Duffy, both carrying shoulder injuries, and Henry are “touch and go”.
Definitely out is scrumhalf Frank Murphy with concussion after taking a heavy knock against Munster, so Kieran Marmion, whose training last week had been limited due to a heavy workload, will slot back in. Outhalf Craig Ronaldson and Dave McSharry still have another two and four weeks respectively on the sidelines.
After Friday’s niggly affair with Munster, Lam believes the Leinster clash will be different.
“With the Six Nations around the corner, European Cup games next week, a Leinster side that is always strong, and players vying for places in the Irish team, there is always a lot on these games.
“Last week there was a lot of niggle, particularly around the set piece, and if a game is really niggly for long periods of time and it is not sorted, players will sort it themselves and that is not ideal. We have George Clancy [referee] this week and I am confident with his experience that it will be a good game.”
Last weekend Munster struck the first points from a JJ Hanrahan penalty, before Connacht went ahead with two penalties from Dan Parks.
However with Connacht receiving little change from their kicking game, Munster grabbed the initiative when Johne Murphy and James Downey counterattacked. From the resulting phases Hanrahan found a space to race in for a 20th minute try, which he converted, before adding a penalty.
Behind by 13-6 Connacht’s cause was not helped by some tough refereeing decisions, and sinbinnings to Frank Murphy and Nathan White, alongside Munster’s James Cronin, allowing Hanrahan to extend the lead.
Parks and Hanrahan exchanged penalties before Connacht, on the counterattack, were rewarded with a try from replacement Dave Heffernan, with Parks adding the extras for a deserved bonus point.
Lam says that try was the one positive from the fixture for his players to take into the Leinster match.
“It all added up to an average game, but the biggest thing to take out of it was the last try when we actually did all the things we do at training. So we said, as a group, it’s not rocket science. If we hold our line, our depth, have some width, be accurate at the breakdown, accurate when carrying the ball, then all of a sudden we have all attacking options. We will use it as a reference point going forward and if we do that, then our chances of success will increase.”
“Every day we are trying to get better, and there are more and more examples of players taking real ownership and not tolerating average performances. That is really exciting.
“There is a real theme now to the second half of this league - it’s about converting the learnings, keep improving and working as team.”
Connacht (v Munster ): G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt ); A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Replacements: D Buckley for Wilkinson (49 ), K Marmion for Murphy (53 ), D Leader for Griffin (56 ), A Muldowney for Kearney (56 ), G Naoupu for McKeon (60 ), Ah You for White (60 ), Griffin for Duffy (65 ), J Carty for Henshaw (75 ), D Heffernan for Harris-Wright (75 ).
Munster: D Hurley; K Earls, J Murphy, J Downey, R O’Mahony; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; D O’Callaghan, D Foley; P Butler, S Dougall, J Coughlan (cpt ) Replacements: CJ Stander for Dougall (47 ), S Archer for Ryan (59 ), G Hurley for Williams (59 ), B Holland for Foley (68 ), I Dineen for Murphy (68 ), G Slattery for Scannell (75 ), J Holland for Hanrahan (76 ), Cotter for Cronin (79 ).